Paragraphs in progression

A READABLE TEXT flows through a sequence of paragraphs, each of which serves a distinctive function. While experienced writers tend to build that succession instinctively, even the best can benefit from slowing down and identifying precisely what effects they are trying to achieve at each step.

Knowing a paragraph’s intended function will help focus its content, particularly when trying to articulate the value of a text—as an author must do in the introduction.

For the sake of simplicity, a paragraph’s core purpose can be divided into two categories: elements of basic structure and items providing more flexibility. By way of illustration, this text’s paragraphs aim to both describe their own role and convey the notion of a logical progression.

Essentials

Paragraphs fulfill a primary function: to make a point. When sharing your analysis, you inevitably break it down into parts, each presented as a standalone idea. These usually deserve a paragraph of their own, with sufficient elaboration and evidence to convince your reader before you move on.

At the same time, a series of paragraphs must be more than the sum of its parts—which is why paragraphs do not boil down to making new, separated points, but rather build on those that came before them. Often, for example, they present a counterpoint to the one just made.

Meanwhile, some points are bundled together, in a list whose purpose is to tick off several items that either do not require detailed explanations or, on the contrary, beg systematic elaboration. The latter applies to lists that briefly outline the structure of what follows—in this case, the variety of paragraphs that attend to unpacking a central idea: discussion, zoom-in, zoom-out, parallel, consequence, wrap-up, and so on.

Elaboration

Although a point can sometimes be made in one paragraph, many ideas will in fact require several. While some may be devoted to addressing counterpoints, many will instead usher in more nuance.

Proving a given point usually demands examples, which in turn may require several paragraphs to describe—especially when the author draws on vivid experiences or anecdotes. Synaps essays, for instance, often rely on detailed descriptions of people, places or events in ways that both support an analytic argument and provide the human depth needed for it to resonate.

Other paragraphs go in the opposite direction, resorting to conceptual generalizations. One can claim that journalistic prose often goes back and forth between real-life anecdotes and abstract statements, without having to pull up excerpts from actual publications.

To make a point, an author may use a parallel, by translating the same idea into a different frame of reference. Paragraphs could thus be compared to a staircase, where each step supports the adjacent one. For their diversity, paragraphs are also akin to a toolbox, from which an author can pick whatever instrument best suits his or her aims.

As a result, authors must be prepared to make decisions based on what they need at any given juncture in the text. Say the previous paragraph posited a very broad point; the following one will narrow it down and give examples. Conversely, a highly specific anecdote will naturally lead to a few more sentences putting it in perspective. In that sense, each paragraph hints at what should follow.

Of course, there are many more options to choose from. The overall goal is not to be exhaustive, but to say enough to convince the reader of the overall argument: that writing functions as a progression of paragraphs, where each individual point acts as a stepping stone leading to the next.

Concluding

When editing a text, it can be useful to map out and tag each paragraph’s function. A well-structured text is revealingly easy to label, while a confused one makes that exercise virtually impossible. Recognizing what functional paragraphs are missing is an essential, albeit largely unconscious, aspect of editing.

This text could not end on the previous paragraph, because it wasn’t designed as a punchline but rather as the lead up to one. Just as an introduction aims to produce well-defined effects, a conclusion must bring the argument to a close—preferably with a resonant last sentence, a thoughtful takeaway, or even just a pun. Hopefully, this short essay will take you up a few steps in your own progression.

* * *

[Hook] A readable text flows through a sequence of paragraphs, each of which serves a distinctive function. While experienced writers tend to build that succession instinctively, even the best can benefit from slowing down and identifying precisely what effects they are trying to achieve at each step.

[Frame] Knowing a paragraph’s intended function will help focus its content, particularly when trying to articulate the value of a text—as an author must do in the introduction.

[Outline] For the sake of simplicity, a paragraph’s core purpose can be divided into two categories: elements of basic structure and items providing more flexibility. By way of illustration, this text’s paragraphs aim to both describe their own role and convey the notion of a logical progression.

Essentials

[Point] Paragraphs fulfill a primary function: to make a point. When sharing your analysis, you inevitably break it down into parts, each presented as a standalone idea. These usually deserve a paragraph of their own, with sufficient elaboration and evidence to convince your reader before you move on.

[Flipside] At the same time, a series of paragraphs must be more than the sum of its parts—which is why paragraphs do not boil down to making new, separated points, but rather build on those that came before them. Often, for example, they present a counterpoint to the one just made.

[List] Meanwhile, some points are bundled together, in a list whose purpose is to tick off several items that either do not require detailed explanations or, on the contrary, beg systematic elaboration. The latter applies to lists that briefly outline the structure of what follows—in this case, the variety of paragraphs that attend to unpacking a central idea: discussion, zoom-in, zoom-out, parallel, consequence, wrap-up, and so on.

Elaboration

[Discussion] Although a point can sometimes be made in one paragraph, many ideas will in fact require several. While some may be devoted to addressing counterpoints, many will instead usher in more nuance.

[Zoom-in] Proving a given point usually demands examples, which in turn may require several paragraphs to describe—especially when the author draws on vivid experiences or anecdotes. Synaps essays, for instance, often rely on detailed descriptions of people, places or events in ways that both support an analytic argument and provide the human depth needed for it to resonate.

[Zoom-out] Other paragraphs go in the opposite direction, resorting to conceptual generalizations. One can claim that journalistic prose often goes back and forth between real-life anecdotes and abstract statements, without having to pull up excerpts from actual publications.

[Parallel] To make a point, an author may use a parallel, by translating the same idea into a different frame of reference. Paragraphs could thus be compared to a staircase, where each step supports the adjacent one. For their diversity, paragraphs are also akin to a toolbox, from which an author can pick whatever instrument best suits his or her aims.

[Consequence] As a result, authors must be prepared to make decisions based on what they need at any given juncture in the text. Say the previous paragraph posited a very broad point; the following one will narrow it down and give examples. Conversely, a highly specific anecdote will naturally lead to a few more sentences putting it in perspective. In that sense, each paragraph hints at what should follow.

[Wrap-up] Of course, there are many more options to choose from. The overall goal is not to be exhaustive, but to say enough to convince the reader of the overall argument: that writing functions as a progression of paragraphs, where each individual point acts as a stepping stone leading to the next.

Concluding

[Prescription] When editing a text, it can be useful to map out and tag each paragraph’s function. A well-structured text is revealingly easy to label, while a confused one makes that exercise virtually impossible. Recognizing what functional paragraphs are missing is an essential, albeit largely unconscious, aspect of editing.

[Punchline] This text could not end on the previous paragraph, because it wasn’t designed as a punchline but rather as the lead up to one. Just as an introduction aims to produce well-defined effects, a conclusion must bring the argument to a close—preferably with a resonant last sentence, a thoughtful takeaway, or even just a pun. Hopefully, this short essay will take you up a few steps in your own progression.

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Illustration credit: William Blake Jacob’s dream by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.

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